At the End of an Age

by John Lukacs

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078


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The Hungarian-born John Lukacs has always eschewed the tendency toward narrow specialization practiced by most academic historians. He has written histories of the Cold War, of the age of the bourgeoisie, and of fin-de-siècle Budapest, as well as several works that defy the usual descriptive labels. At the End of an Age is one of these, and it is in some respects an extended footnote to several earlier books, including his Historical Consciousness: Or, The Remembered Past (1968), a work whose central conundrum may be stated simply: What does it mean to write history in an age in which the very conditions of understanding have themselves become historical? At the End of an Age reconsiders a number of answers to this question, among them the claim that historical understanding, governed as it is by the principle of indeterminacy, can be neither purely objective nor purely subjective, but is necessarily relational or participatory.

Lukacs begins with a chapter that seeks to justify the claim that the present is, indeed, the end of an age. The age in question is the modern age, which began some five hundred years ago and which still lingers on. Lukacs is convinced, nonetheless, that however prolonged its expiration, the modern age is passing, soon to be replaced by a new civilizational phase. What this new age may look like, Lukacs is hesitant to say. The current moment is the interregnum, but precisely whom does it affect? The modern age is, first of all, a European phenomenon, and thus a distinct period in the ongoing development of Western civilization. However, European expansionism meant that the typical institutions and cultural assumptions of its modern age were carried throughout the world, and thus the end of the modern age is a global concern.

Lukacs insists that the passing of the modern age is not synonymous with the decline of the West. He makes a convincing case that the modern age is, thus far, the most illustrious age in the history of the West, a complex mosaic of ages, none of which can be said to be more essential to its character than any other. The modern age is, however, primarily a bourgeois age, which was first of all the age of the State (here understood as the sovereign nation-state). Allied at first with the absolute monarchies of western Europe, the bourgeoisie emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the ruling class of most of the nation-states of Europe and North America. The modern age was also the age of money and industry. Money, while not the invention of the bourgeoisie, has certainly been a distinctive sign of its mode of power, and it was under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie that, by 1900, money reached the greatest extent of its value and the Industrial Revolution became the engine of an unprecedented prosperity and mobility.

Lukacs offers a brief but illuminating discussion of the bourgeois invention of privacy—a phenomenon he associates with the age of the family, a period in which the idea of “home” was associated with a heightened interior life and a new respect for the privacy of individuals within the matrix of familial ties. Only later, growing out of this initial recognition of an almost sacred zone of privacy, did the panoply of individual rights begin to be recognized and sanctioned by a growing body of law. It must also be noted that the bourgeois family was an urban family—the bourgeoisie represent the first ruling class in Western history to be identified almost exclusively with city life. Thus, the modern age is also the age of the town, and Lukacs notes the irony that the many great metropolitan centers that developed under the auspices of the bourgeoisie had, by the late twentieth century, become the breeding grounds of millions of autonomous, deracinated individuals for whom the bourgeois cult of privacy had become virtually meaningless. Instead, the denizens of the modern city in its decline crave not privacy but recognition, not concealment but exposure.

Modern science appeared in the seventeenth century, and is popularly assumed to be the quintessential product of the modern age. However, as Lukacs argues in chapter 2, “The Presence of Historical Thinking,” a more important development occurred at roughly the same time: the emergence of historical consciousness. As late as the Renaissance, the past was understood much as the classical Greeks and Romans had understood it: as a reservoir of types or models of virtue and vice, as a source of moral or political instruction, but never as the story of how the present came to be what it is. Only at the beginning of the seventeenth century does a break occur, suggesting a new understanding of the past as historical development. Thus, Francis Bacon, in 1600, was the first to use the term “progress” to mean not progress in space but in time. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the popular interest in historical narrative grew enormously, but even the historical understanding of the Enlightenment, Lukacs argues, was deficient by modern standards. It required the Romantic revolution to usher in a fully developed mode of historical understanding, one at first allied with the growth of national consciousness and a concern for the particularities of cultural inheritance.

However, as Lukacs frequently cautions, the understanding that the present is linked to the past by an essential continuity should not be confused with the deterministic idea of progress that seized so powerfully upon the thinkers of the eighteenth century. In Lukacs’s view, the idea of progress is one of the great myths of the modern age, and has in fact retarded the development of true historical understanding. The progressive view of history understands historical development as a linear or dialectical movement toward the perfection of human society, the slow but inexorable triumph of human reason over ignorance and superstition. Lukacs, while not denying the fact of human progress, rejects the notion that history is determined, whether by ideal or material causes. Instead, he insists upon the Judeo- Christian (and commonsense) view that historical development, progressive or otherwise, is ultimately not a mere product of “forces” but the outcome of free human choices. The record of the past is never simply what happened, but also what might have happened. Thus, the job of the conscientious historian is “always to maintain toward his subject an indeterminist point of view. He must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors still seem to permit different outcomes.”

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As a result of the professionalization of history in the nineteenth century, history came to be understood as a science, and to the degree that this meant a heightened concern for accuracy and verification, such a change was welcome. All too often, however, professional historians fell under the sway of a false objectivism, the assumption that an absolutely objective and indisputable record of the past was possible and that the productions of history could have the same certainty as those of applied science. In chapter 4, “The Question of Scientific Knowledge,” Lukacs examines the revolutionary implications of German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s (1901-1976) so- called uncertainty principle, suggesting that Heisenberg’s scientific theorem, properly understood, also undermines the claims of academic historians to be capable of achieving objectivity. In 1925, Heisenberg demonstrated that “the act of the physicist’s observation [of subatomic particles] . . . interfered either with the movement or with the situation of the object.” If that were so, then no purely objective view of the object was possible. Classical Newtonian physics was no longer reliable, at least at the extremes of scientific knowledge. More important, the very act of observing alters the nature of the object.

From Lukacs’s perspective, what is essential here is the realization that what is true of scientific observation in the most extreme cases is a fortiori true of historical observation in typical cases, for the object of historical observation is not matter but human society. To be purely objective, that is, removed from the object of observation, the historian would have to be something other than human. In historical understanding, the act of observation always alters the nature of the object. While Lukacs admits that the objectivist mode of thought in academic history has largely become discredited in theory, it nonetheless lingers on in practice, or it has been replaced by an equally mistaken subjectivism, the view that historians’ own historical and social environments wholly determine their perspective. However, Lukacs denies that this recognition of historical uncertainty amounts to an endorsement of subjectivism. Again, he weighs in against all determinisms.

Historical understanding, argues Lukacs, is emphatically the understanding of human beings by human beings and is therefore not achieved by antiseptic detachment from its object but through participation, “which is always, and necessarily, incomplete.” In chapter 4, “An Illustration,” Lukacs explores a historical phenomenon that he has written about extensively, the rise of Hitlerism in Germany. He attempts to show the inadequacy of the scientific model of history for understanding Hitler himself, his anti-Semitism and its relation to his political and military actions, or his popularity among the German people. Regarding the latter, Lukacs notes that there can be no satisfying method of understanding Hitler’s standing with the Germans by purely objective means. Lukacs notes that if a historian, after extensive research into whatever quantifiable information is available, were to conclude objectively that “only 20 percent of the German people . . . were unquestioning adherents of Hitler, this [would] not mean that 80 percent were his potential (let alone actual) opponents.” The reverse would also hold. Such purely scientific approaches to historical study are often superficial. In Lukacs’s view, a more profound historical understanding of Hitler’s popularity would necessarily involve attempting a participatory understanding of the minds and hearts of the German people; it would mean refusing to make Hitlerism an absurdly unique phenomenon and placing Hitler’s appeal to the people within the context of the ongoing popularity of German nationalism (which long preceded Hitler), among other factors.

In a short concluding chapter titled “At the Center of the Universe,” Lukacs makes a startling claim: Contrary to the prevailing opinion of most modern thinkers, human beings do occupy the center of the universe. While not denying the strictly scientific accuracy of the discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) or Galileo (1564-1642), Lukacs insists that in a far more significant sense, the principle of indeterminacy enables humans to recover the position of centrality that was earlier thought to be lost. Indeterminacy proves the priority of mind over matter, thus reversing René Decartes’s (1596- 1650) dictum cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”); instead, argues Lukacs, “sum, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I exist; therefore I think; and the consciousness of my thinking gives another dimension to my existence.” At the end of the modern age it is no longer possible to deny “the inseparability of our thinking from matters around us, of what we can see and observe.” In spite of the narrow accuracy of scientific claims, the universe does not in the most important sense exist apart from human knowledge of and participation in it.

Readers coming to Lukacs’s work for the first time may find this slim volume inadequate for a full understanding of his argument. Such readers may find an acquaintance with his earlier books, especially Historical Consciousness, helpful. It should be noted as well that At the End of an Ageis a work that assumes a rather demanding knowledge of modern history and a wide familiarity with the leading intellectual currents of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Marxism, scientism, positivism, Freudianism, and so on. Some may also object to the rather freewheeling style of composition in this book; its ideas are not developed systematically and the examples provided, while often interesting, are not always transparently apt. Finally, there are bound to be critics of this work who will dismiss it as merely reactionary. That would be a mistake. Lukacs’s thought balances a number of conflicting perspectives impressively. Neither a conservative (in the usual sense of the word) or a progressive, Lukacs is the kind of historian who is needed more than ever: one whose vision of the past is not limited by either reactionary nostalgia or progressivist distortion.

Sources for Further Study

The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26, 2002, p. B7.

First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life, May, 2002, p. 55.

National Review 54 (June 3, 2002): 52.

Publishers Weekly 249 (March 25, 2002): 58.

The Spectator 288 (May 4, 2002): 41.

The Weekly Standard 7 (June 17, 2002): 39.

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